President Trump’s first week in office was marked by a blast of executive orders; revisions in the permanent National Security Council membership with the addition of Steve Bannon and the relegation of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, and National Intelligence Director designee, Dan Coats, to occasional visitors; and bold statements about import tariffs and the Mexican wall. All of this activity was jarring for a country accustomed to more placid public displays.
Adding to this dizzying mix was the tempest in the inauguration attendance teapot. In his first appearance before the White House Press Corps on January 21, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated categorically, “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”1
President Trump continued to assert this claim during his visit to Central Intelligence Agency headquarters the same afternoon.2 Although there are many ways in which viewership can be measured, the most favorable interpretation still puts Trump in third place behind President Reagan and President Obama.3
In a Meet the Press interview the following Sunday, Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s statements by calling them “alternative facts.” In his response to Conway, Chuck Todd said, “Alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods.”4
Todd’s rejoinder is also misleading. Facts are linked to circumstances or definitions of circumstances from which they arise. Facts reduce uncertainty but do not eliminate it. Facts, depending on their source and use, have implied probability distributions in which the mean value or interpretation may be the most probable, but other interpretations are also possible. The more subjective the issue, the wider the distribution.
Where we get into trouble as a nation is when false facts are enforced on the national psyche through public assertions, suppression of information channels or elimination of news altogether (e.g., Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare hearings).
The public reaction as we enter President Trump’s second week is apprehensive at best. Are we afraid that the president’s initial actions threaten America’s unique approach to the democratic experiment? Is the Trump administration a new type of political creature that uses strategic brand development tools to substitute impressions for fact? Does this new “brand” approach dilute American-style pragmatism that values solutions over theories, style, and ideology?
Are we, ourselves, complicit because we narrow our individual reality by relying on social media, curating our news, and remain studiously incurious about circumstances different from our own? In a world where information and ideas are free and ubiquitous, are we consuming less?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, we have a problem.
Americans are, by culture, independent minded. In the opening paragraph of Book 2 of Democracy In America (1840), political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “each American appeals to the individual exercise of his own understanding alone.” This absence of a single philosophical method gave rise to the 20th-century term American “exceptionalism.”5
Americans see the world from the perspective of their individual experience, values, and facts, rather than through the lens of ideologies, class traditions, or philosophic or theoretical constructs. They act on the basis of their own realities rather than a prescribed cultural or ideological foundation. American institutions blend and direct these very different realities to find pragmatic solutions to the challenges of social and economic change.
This experiment has evolved new norms of governance (e.g., anticorruption/cronyism rules), legislation and regulation (e.g., Voting Rights Act, Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq (2002), the Affordable Care Act, Clean Air/Clean Water Act), and/or general social and cultural norms and behaviors.
Some of these changes constitute huge leaps in American progress; some have turned out to be horrible ideas. In some instances, there remains debate about which is which. However, it goes without saying that few other modern societies have plunged themselves so completely into the future as has the United States.
This messy approach to American decision-making continually evolves new belief systems about the way the world works, in other words, realistic views of the future that enable us to act. Based on these new belief systems, we experiment, i.e., adopt, modify, assess and incorporate the results into our understanding. This is what Douglass North, co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, calls adaptive efficiency.
This process creates winners and losers. Success with one set of approaches creates widening gaps between segments of societies that create dissatisfaction and disapproval of the power elite.
Out of that process can come a new alignment of perceptions and approach—but not always. The 2016 election was about shifting the power base to reallocate power and economic opportunity.
The existential risk to America is that rather than a new actionable view of the world, we get an alignment of interests dedicated to establishing enduring power-based messaging through a mix of information and disinformation. American pragmatism drives institutions — private and public — to innovate in search of new practices and outcomes. (Think health care!) And, while there is a place for alternative facts, change is based on a consensus objectivity, not on power and ideology.
Beverly Gage, a Yale University historian of 20th-century modern American politics and society, said in our interview that American political history is more marked by conflict and violence than generally recognized.
What has changed in Gage’s view is the disintegration of the American narrative of progress, a “share(d) vision of what American society is supposed to be. Politics is increasingly defined in terms of divided politics — the politics of competing visions — much more than … at other points in our history.”
Divided politics elevates power over positive change. Without a commitment to advance the human condition, political power becomes a self-fulfilling end in and of itself.
Are these the concerns that are aroused in the American psyche by recent events? Who knows? The American democratic experiment is still immature, but the history of democratic experiments is littered with failure.
President Trump is, indeed, one of the most active incoming presidents in modern history even as he is also one of the most unpopular. His relatively low approval ratings should not be unexpected after an election in which the opposition candidate, Hillary Clinton, received 48 percent of the popular vote to Trump’s 46 percent (6 percent went to third-party candidates).
Still, the range of opinions at the end of Trump’s first week in office is informative. Gallup and Quinnipiac report relatively low overall approval ratings — in the 36 to 43 percent range.6 Rasmussen, which consistently showed the highest rating for Trump during the campaign, reported a fall of seven percentage points in only the first week, from 59 percent immediately after the inauguration to 51 percent as of January 31.7
More telling is just how polarized opinion remains. Even the Rasmussen polls show 35 percent strongly approve and 41 percent strongly disapprove of his first week in office.8 In the Quinnipiac poll, 19 percent were undecided.9 More likely, they are holding their breath.
1 Ford, Matt. “Trump’s Press Secretary Falsely Claims: ‘Largest Audience Ever to Witness an Inauguration, Period’.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
2 Lee, Timothy B. “Trump Claims 1.5 Million People Came to His Inauguration. Here’s What the Evidence Shows.” Vox. Vox, 23 Jan. 2017. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
3 Ford, Matt. “Trump’s Press Secretary Falsely Claims: ‘Largest Audience Ever to Witness an Inauguration, Period’.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
4 Palmeri, Tara, Shane Goldmacher and Matthew Nussbaum, Elana Schor and Madeline Conway, Blake Hounshell, Laura Turner, and Joshua Zeitz. “Trump Fumes over Inaugural Crowd Size.” POLITICO. 22 Jan. 2017. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
5 de Tocqueville, Alex. Democracy in America, Book 2, Chapter 1 (1840). Trans. and Ed. Harvey C Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2000
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